The food world is in shock. The irreverent, articulate, sardonic, brutally honest Anthony Bourdain is no more. He was known as a chef, brilliant writer, award-winning TV host, producer and world traveler, and arguably one of, if not the biggest culinary celebrity in the world. But above all, he was a storyteller in search of the fascinating, the absurd, and yes, the heartwarming, too.
Bourdain first brought his stories to life in his bestselling "Kitchen Confidential" published in 2000. The book chronicled his years as a chef in New York City, as he spilled all of the dark secrets of the restaurant world, rampant drug use included. And the food world was never the same after that. The book broke the mold of what a chef should be, where the starched chef’s whites and toque were replaced with dirty aprons, disheveled hair, tattoos, and profanity mixed in.
While he never attained big success as a chef, the publication of "Kitchen Confidential" catapulted him to the top of the food world, eventually leading him to abandon his career as a chef and foray into writing and television. He found himself traveling the world as host for TV shows such as "A Cook’s Tour" followed by "No Reservations," "The Layover," and his current series, "Parts Unknown." Through the camera and his distinctive voice, viewers discovered diverse food cultures around the world, and especially his love for all things Asian, from Vietnam’s street food to Japan’s exceptional cuisine.
In 2008, he visited the Philippines for the first time to shoot an episode for "No Reservations." But after that episode was aired, Bourdain acknowledged that many Filipino viewers came away disappointed with some of the segments. Perhaps the expectations were too high, or the understanding of Philippine cuisine too superficial. But whatever people thought, that one episode made a big impact in so many ways, in terms of presenting a different face of Filipino food to the world.
One of the highlights of that episode was Bourdain’s encounter with Claude Tayag and his wife Maryann at their home and by-reservation-only Bale Dutung in Angeles City, Pampanga.
In a telephone interview, with the news of Bourdain’s demise still fresh in his mind, Tayag shared what he remembered of that first encounter 10 years ago, “Maryann and I found him to be very, very down to earth, not pretentious, not demanding. Maryann even asked him, ‘Are you this nice in person, without the swearing?’ What he said was, ‘I’m a guest in your house. It would be a different story if you were in my house.’” Tayag added, “He didn’t say a single negative word in that show. He really appreciated our cuisine.”
Tayag encountered Bourdain again in 2015 at the World Street Food Congress in Singapore, and then for a third time in 2017 when Bourdain was invited to give a talk at the World Street Food Congress held in Manila. Tayag got the chance to interview Bourdain for his show "Chasing Flavors," quizzing him especially on his take on sisig and lechon. I was fortunate to be present during Bourdain’s talk as well as Tayag’s interview.
Tayag gave Bourdain credit for helping spread the popularity of sisig, innards and all. He related: “Bourdain basically catapulted the popularity of sisig in mainstream America. That’s how sisig became big. He was a champion of street food. He loved his pork in all its forms. He liked oily, greasy stuff. Food for common folk.”
Before his last visit in 2017, Bourdain made a prior trip to Manila in 2016 for the secret shooting of an episode for the award-winning "Parts Unknown" on CNN. This time, the focus wasn’t on food, but Pinoy cover bands and OFWs.
Tracey Santiago, a food and culture consultant, was lucky enough to be present at some of the episode’s most memorable scenes: Bourdain enjoying halo-halo on a street in Intramuros, even buying some for the curious kids who were watching him; that crazy, fun office Christmas party scene; and rock band members making and eating adobo. Here’s what she had to share about that experience: “We just finished cooking the adobo that was shot for the segment. I listened to Anthony Bourdain talk about life beyond being a chef. I remember him saying that at age 35 and if you're still cooking, you are already over age for a chef.”
From feeding customers for a living, Bourdain moved on to feeding readers and viewers with stories of faraway places, the people he met, and ultimately their stories that touched his heart. That Manila episode that aired on "Parts Unknown" in 2016 featured such stories that warmed the hearts of many viewers, myself included. Looking back, Santiago pondered: “That's why he left the kitchen and started traveling the world, not just for food but to get to know people. He made a good connection with people regardless of culture or race. I realized then that his own story was what made him an amazing storyteller.” And while his story has taken a tragic turn, what remains for us to celebrate are the compelling stories he left behind, told with that unique, irreverent, yet humane voice that we won’t soon forget.